Earl Ofari Hutchinson
When Ohio Congressman Tony Hall introduced his resolution in 1997 asking Congress to officially apologize for slavery, he was blasted from pillar to post. Irate whites called the resolution wasteful and racist. Many blacks ridiculed it as much too little and much too late. Hall won't give up. He'll again try to get Congress to apologize for slavery as well as to set up a commission, fund education programs to study slavery's effects, and establish a national slavery museum. Almost certainly he'll be hammered again with the same arguments that it's unfair to blame whites and other non-whites for slavery and that blacks have had a century and a half to shake off the horrors of slavery. These are wrong-headed and fallacious arguments. The U.S. government, business, and the white majority whites, not just a handful of Southern planters, profited and benefited from slavery. The U.S. government encoded slavery in the Constitution, and protected and nourished it for a century. Traders, insurance companies, bankers, shippers, and landowners, made billions off of it. Their ill-gotten profits fueled America's industrial might. Meanwhile, white labor groups for decades after slavery insured that blacks were excluded from unions and the trades and confined to the dirtiest, poorest paying jobs.
While many whites and non-white immigrants did come to America after the Civil War they were not subjected to the decades of relentless racial terror and legal segregation as were blacks. Through the decades of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, African-Americans were transformed into the poster group for racial dysfunctionality. The image of blacks as lazy, crime and violence prone, irresponsible, and sexual predators has stoked white fears and hostility and has served as the standard rationale for lynchings, racial assaults, hate crimes and police violence.
The fact that some blacks earn more and live better than ever today, and have gotten boosts from welfare, social and education programs, civil rights legislation, and affirmative action programs, does not mean that America has shaken the hideous legacy of slavery. Recent polls by the National Conference for Community and Justice, a Washington D.C. public policy group, found that blacks are still overwhelmingly the victims of racial discrimination, and the Leadership Council on Civil Rights found that young blacks are far likelier than whites to be imprisoned for similar crimes. Blacks continue to have the highest or near highest rates of poverty, infant mortality, victims of violence, and HIV/AID affliction then any other group in America. They are more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods, be refused business loans, and attend decrepit, failed public schools than non-whites. The beating of black motorist Rodney King, the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the torture of Abner Louima, and the racial profiling of young black males by the police are ample proof that blacks are still at mortal risk from police violence. Blame this on the legacy of slavery. Also, there is nothing new about state and federal governments issuing apologies and payments for past wrongs committed against African-Americans. The U.S. government admitted it was legally liable in 1997 to pay the black survivors and family members of the two decade long syphilis experiment begun in the 1930's by the U.S. Public Health Service that turned black patients into human guinea pigs got $10 million from the government and an apology from Clinton They were the victims of a blatant medical atrocity conducted with the full knowledge and approval of the U.S. government. The state legislature in Florida in 1994 agreed to make payments to the survivors and relatives of those who lost their lives and property when a white mob destroyed the all-black town of Rosewood in 1923. This was a specific act of mob carnage that was tacitly condoned by some public officials and law enforcement officers. Florida was liable for the violence and was duty bound to pay and apologize. The Oklahoma state legislature is now considering reparations payments to the survivors of the Tulsa massacre of 1921. And the Chicago City Council with the blessing of Mayor Richard M. Daley in May near unanimously backed a congressional bill by Michigan Congressman John Conyers to bankroll a commission to study the feasibility of paying reparations for slavery.
The brutal truth is that the hinge of America's continuing racial divide is its brutal mistreatment of blacks. This can be directly traced to the monstrous legacy of slavery. That's why Hall is legally and morally right to demand that Congress apologize for that mistreatment. And Congress should do the right thing and issue that apology.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Disappearance of Black Leadership. email:firstname.lastname@example.org
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